COVID-19

Imports way off as COVID-19 slams into U.S.-China trade

Scott Tong May 7, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A worker at a container port in Wuhan, China, in April. The U.S.-China trade deal hangs in the balance as COVID-19 has made some of the conditions hard to meet. Getty Images
COVID-19

Imports way off as COVID-19 slams into U.S.-China trade

Scott Tong May 7, 2020
A worker at a container port in Wuhan, China, in April. The U.S.-China trade deal hangs in the balance as COVID-19 has made some of the conditions hard to meet. Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

China may be the only economy in the world returning to “normal,” but it’s import picture still looks pretty bad — down 14% according to new numbers Thursday.

As far as buying American goods, China is way off track in terms of import targets Beijing agreed to in its trade deal with Washington, signed in January. Of course, the pandemic slammed both economies, but already President Donald Trump is threatening to kill the deal and raise more tariffs. The two countries plan to meet on trade issues next week.

Typically, trade deals reduce tariffs and then let capitalism figure out who buys what and how much. But the U.S.-China deal has a target that China buy an average $12 billion in American goods each month.

Right now, the actual imports are less than half that, according to S&P’s Global Market Intelligence. Chris Rogers, a contributor to S&P Global, said China hardly bought anything when the pandemic hit there.

“While the economy was locked down, that of course was going to trim a lot of demand,” Rogers said. “That demand will have picked up in late March, but of course American manufacturing and American farmers and American energy producers aren’t there.”

There to make stuff, or transport it, during our disease peak. Case in point: the meatpacking plants shutting down, as workers got sick from the virus. 

U.S. exports of cars to China fell, as did soybeans, which tend to trade in the winter and spring.

“Both sides are having the outbreak in the peak demand season for soybean exports,” said Wendong Zhang, assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University.

To most analysts, the Chinese import target was always a long shot — ambitious, pandemic or no. But Zhang sees one way to get there.  

“The only way to do it is to buy some of the products that you would otherwise buy from other countries and now buy from the U.S.,” Zhang said.

That would mean the government butt into markets, which the free-trade deal was designed to avoid. If the agreement goes kaput, as Trump now threatens, he’d put more tariffs on Chinese stuff coming here.

“Putting tariffs on consumer goods and other things we would want people to be buying to help the economy get back on its feet doesn’t seem like the right domestic economic decision,” said Lynn Fischer Fox, a trade lawyer at Arnold & Porter. Not to mention the stock market potentially flipping out.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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